In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

A Rush and a Flush

The psychological appeal of poker

I was once asked in a BBC radio interview about whether poker should be classed as a sport. Personally, I don’t view poker as a sport even though skill is quite clearly involved in playing. However, chance still has a part to play. To me, poker is more akin to games like chess than traditional sporting competitions. 

One of the most common questions I have been asked by the media is whether the poker boom is going to last. It is easy to see why the press would ask such a question because there were—and still are—countless instances of games and toys flourishing for brief periods of time, reaching unprecedented heights of popularity—only for them to disappear without a trace (the Rubik's Cube being a good example). However, I truly believe that poker will have a long shelf life because it shares fundamental similarities with other long lasting leisure activities. These factors that determine whether games like poker become firmly established or simply fade away include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, competitions and tournaments, and corporate sponsorship. Let's look at these briefly in turn.

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Firstly, all good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for poker’s continued popularity and future existence. In short, there will always room for improvement.

Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of books on poker and the emergence of monthly poker magazines again demonstrate how healthy the state of the poker industry is!

Thirdly, there needs to be competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play (and likeminded people to play with) there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas—such as the World Series of Poker—in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reactions, problem solving ability and overall game play.

Finally—and very much a sign of the times—no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind. The poker industry is a multi-billion pound industry so corporate sponsorship in this particular area shouldn't be too much of a problem! Connected with this is the fact that poker has also moved onto the small screen and into our living rooms. When I’m channel hopping late at night I seem to do nothing but flick from one poker television program to another. 

Televised poker is similar to reality TV, but poker players are really competing for a million dollars and are not acting. When people watch professional sports they may project themselves as being able to “play with the pros,” but they know it is a fantasy. Viewers of poker can think along with the players and really feel that if they had the opportunity, they might be one of the players at the final table. There seems little doubt that the media blitz of television poker shows has contributed to the surge in poker popularity. Today's youngsters are the first generation in history under the age of 25 years, to grow up in a gambling permissive society. It is a cultural change that has taken a game that was once largely limited to card rooms and gaming halls to casinos, the Internet, and national television.

In addition to these factors is the psychological appeal of poker itself. Poker has the same appeal that chess (or any other game of strategy) has. It's the psychological and intellectual “game within the game.” Like chess, you're also thinking further ahead than the next card. The number of things to think about is potentially limitless. It's an intellectual game that never has an ending. There is no perfect strategy and everything you do is contingent upon a hundred other factors, so it never gets boring for players. Every table is different, every game is different, every hand is different. And—if you do it well—you can win a lot of money!

Sean Carroll from University of Chicago goes a little further. He thinks that the secret of the allure (and challenge) of poker is that it's a game of incomplete information. Gamblers know the cards they already have, and they (should) know the probabilities of various further cards coming their way, but they have to infer their opponents' hands from tiny hints (such as their bets, their positions at the table, their personal styles, etc). Carroll says Texas Hold-Em is so popular because it manages to accurately hit the mark between "enough information to devise a consistently winning strategy" and "not enough information to do much more than guess." The psychological charm in such games is that there is no perfect strategy, in the sense that there is no algorithm guaranteed to win in the long run against any other algorithm. The best poker players are able to use different algorithms against different opponents, as the situation warrants. 

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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